Long-time readers here will know that the Parlando Project has been performing a section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” each year to celebrate National Poetry Month.* It’s been a major task, and if one were to listen to all those past sections, you’d get a fair sample of the variety of original music we create for these performances. Similarly, the amount of work that goes into all of the Parlando Project has been huge (we’re rapidly approaching our 450th piece), but this year’s section of “The Waste Land” is small—the smallest section of Eliot’s Modernist landmark.
I recall when I first encountered “The Waste Land” as a teenager how puzzling the whole thing was. Right from the start it was confusing, with allusions and foreign language phrases that I had no way of decoding. It was said to be important, and it certainly seemed to be quite the accumulation of something, but its hard to grasp nature didn’t make it easy to like. I could understand only a little about what Keats was saying in a poem like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” back then too, but the essence of that poem’s longing and attractive mystery was there from my first reading. Eliot’s poem? It just seemed complex, even in an off-putting way.
But when my past-times teenager got to his year’s section, “Death by Water,” I found poetry I could take in immediately had slipped into the much larger corpus of this poem. “Death by Water” is a small elegy, and what allusions it had (like Keats’) were alluring. “Phoenician,” even at that age, had the right kind of mystery, what with the seafaring and alphabet. That feint echo of Shakespeare’s “Full fathom five” sea-change coral-bones. The straightforward sense of mourning.
For all its shortness, I doubt I was alone in finding it one of the most impactful parts of “The Waste Land.” If you’d like to read this short, 10-line section by itself here’s a link to it.
The teenaged T. S. Eliot before he adopted the Harry Potter eyewear.
In 1952, decades after “The Waste Land” was written, this section took an important part in a literary controversy. A Canadian critic, John Peter, published an article that year claiming that the key to understanding “The Waste Land” was that it was almost entirely a disguised elegy to a French medical student who Eliot knew in Paris before the war: Jean Verdenal. The strong inference in this theory was that Verdenal and Eliot were gay lovers. In 1952 this was not only sensational to the degree it might still be today, it was outright dangerous. To be homosexual was more than a notional criminal offence—and furthermore by this point T. S. Eliot was the living model of a religiously conservative Modernist and a Tory in his politics.
Eliot was furious at this article. Lean solicitors were called in. Retractions were demanded. In the end, Peters not only apologized, the magazine that had published the article tried to round up all extant copies and destroy them.
A couple of decades later, after Eliot had died, this reading was raised again, and this concept of the poem is still being explored in our century.
On one hand, Eliot made no secret that he admired the young Verdenal. They shared a love for the poetry of LaForgue and Mallarmé and acknowledged times together as college students in Paris. Eliot opened his first published poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations with a fond dedication to Verdenal.
“Death by Water” was a key exhibit in this reading of “The Waste Land.” In late April of 1915, Verdenal was serving as a medical officer in the doomed WWI Gallipoli** campaign with the French army fighting along with British and ANZAC forces. Accounts written afterward said Verdenal was heroic in trying to deal with the mass carnage on the Allied side as they tried to gain a beachhead at the edges of the Middle East. He was killed, and there was little ability to bury the dead on the beaches as the invasion failed. They were left to the tides or thrown in the water. A cruel month indeed.
Now to press levity next to death: I used to mispronounce Phlebas as if it had three syllables. Apparently it’s pronounced with two, phoenicianally/phonetically, close to “Flea Bass”—though I think with a short, not long A sound. The next time you see RHCP, you’ll enter the whirlpool and think of T. S. Eliot.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see Phlebas as Verdenal. But I knew nothing of this when I first read “Death by Water.” And you don’t have to know it either to have the words work for you in some way. Eliot had a theory for that, a well-respected theory back in mid-century: “Objective Correlative.” Eliot, by his own theory then, would hold that it makes no difference what the relationship was for him to this other young man in pre-WWI Paris. Subconscious? Sublimation? Closeted? Self-protection? Platonic, or Dionysius denied? No matter. You consider Phlebas or you don’t. Their bones are picked in whispers now anyway.
So, here’s my new addition to the Parlando Project’s ongoing serial performance of “The Waste Land” available with the player gadget below. Perhaps another one where a legitimate singer might better serve my composition, but I like the current of the acoustic guitar music enough to submerge you in it.
*You know: “April is the cruelest month….” That one. No one has said as much, but between the opening line to “The Waste Land,” the prologue to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and Shakespeare’s birthday, April seems like a logical choice for National Poetry Month.
**Another casualty of that campaign, a young British poet-soldier who died of an illness on a ship headed to those beaches: Rupert Brooke. One of the most popular pieces ever presented here is my recasting of a piece Brooke wrote on that troop ship heading to Gallipoli.